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'House of Cards' brings Hollywood to Harford County

What could be the state's largest film production ever is taking shape in the Baltimore suburbs

By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

10:31 PM EDT, March 21, 2012

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Being on TV is nothing new for Baltimore. Think of the recent political dramas like "Game Change" and "VEEP" or earlier crime shows like "Homicide" and"The Wire."

But what's going on within a five-acre area of production offices and massive warehouses turned soundstages in Joppa is a new game altogether.

The makers of the $100 million Netflix political thriller "House of Cards" are virtually building their own Washington in Harford County. There, the vaulted interiors of the Capitol, much of the West Wing of the White House and even a cramped Adams-Morgan apartment are taking shape.

"We're making it to last for what will hopefully be a very long run," says John Melfi, one of the executive producers, whose credits include the HBO series "Rome," for which he also helped build massive sets.

"This is a bigger initial commitment in terms of money ... than I've ever worked on," he says during a tour of the soundstages filled with workers sawing, hammering and painting. "This is a Hollywood studio back lot."

For all the showbiz sizzle that having a cast with Kevin Spacey and a crew led by director David Fincher brings to the area, the show will have significant political and economic ramifications.

This week in Annapolis, government officials and business owners are citing the $70 million that "House of Cards" is expected to bring to the state as a prime example of what incentives for TV/film productions can do.

Lawmakers are debating whether to extend and expand the tax credit that lured TV productions to Maryland last year after a drought following the end of "The Wire" in 2007.

A Senate committee heard testimony Wednesday on Bill 1066, which would raise the tax credit amount from $7.5 million to $22.5 million and extend it to 2016. It's now scheduled to expire next year.

In 2010, the state had only $1 million in incentives, and critics of any tax break for Hollywood producers said in such tough economic times, there were other more pressing financial matters for Marylanders to spend their scarce dollars on.

But last year Gov.Martin O'Malley, who had at one time seemed to agree with the critics, signed the bill into law that kicked incentives up to $7.5 million and brought HBO to town with "Game Change" and "VEEP."

Members of the Maryland film community say the extension and increase are needed if Maryland wants to stay in the game at the level of such prestigious and well-heeled productions.

"Before this, I had to go out of town to find work, which is very disconcerting because there was no work here the last few years," says Fran Gerlach, a Baltimore resident and member of Local 487 of IAETSE, the union that represents painters, carpenters, electricians, grips, set dressers and wardrobe workers.

"The fact that they are using Maryland in lieu of Northern Virginia and D.C. for these political productions is just wonderful," she says taking a break from painting on Soundstage 1. "But it wasn't happening before incentives, I can tell you that. And having a production that's as big as this with this kind of commitment is really something."

The numbers are big. The 13 episodes of Season One will involve 150 days of filming, with 2,000 extras working a total of 5,000 days. The crew includes 125 building workers and 275 overall. They started designing the sets in January, "hammering nails" in February, and already they have served 2,000 meals and paid for 2,000 hotel rooms, according to Beau Willimon, executive producer and screenwriter for "House of Cards."

Willimon says they have spent close to $1 million on construction materials for the sets.

"And we haven't shot a single frame of film yet," he says. "When we go into full-out production starting on April 15, we'll go into the many of tens of millions of dollars."

The numbers will go up as they continue to turn the warehouses into Hollywood soundstages, which involves extensive soundproofing, heating, cooling and major electrical upgrades.

"Having an initial order of 26 episodes for two seasons is an unprecedented situation," says Willimon over a cacophony of power tools. "What that means for us is that we can build on this scale, because we know we're going to be here for two years."

While the word "unprecedented" from a Hollywood producer might suggest hype, what Willimon says is true. Most series start with a pilot — one single episode. If the pilot looks like a winner, the producers will get an order of six to eight episodes for Season One.

That is the way it went for "VEEP," which is only a half-hour comedy, while each of the 26 guaranteed episodes of "House of Cards" is an hour in length. And "VEEP" has an outstanding pedigree and bankable commodities inJulia Louis-Dreyfusas star and Armando Iannucci ("In the Loop") as creator.

"House of Cards" is also being watched closely by the entertainment industry because it is the first major venture into producing its own content by the distribution giant Netflix, which boasts 20 million subscribers. The project is seen as part of a larger movement by distributors such as Netflix and Hulu to start producing and owning content instead of buying it from others.

Netflix outbid the highest-of-high-end established makers of quality TV like HBO by writing such a big check and guaranteeing two seasons of 13 episodes each without a pilot.

"Beyond what's happening here in Joppa, that kind of commitment also means we can find locations in places like Baltimore or the surrounding counties that we can dedicate as ongoing, on-location sites," Willimon says, referring to an agreement announced last week to film at the Calvert Street offices of The Baltimore Sun.

"For example, the newspaper office," he says. "We call it the Washington Herald. That's not newly built like these sets, but we will have control of that space. It will be like another full-time set for us. And we're building there as well."

Willimon, an Academy-Award nominee for the script of George Clooney's "Ides of March," is representative of the level of talent that will be spending the next six months in Harford County working behind and in front of the camera on Season One.

In addition to Spacey, the cast includes Robin Wright ("Moneyball"), who will play his wife, and Kate Mara ("American Horror Story"), who plays a young ambitious political reporter. Spacey plays Francis J. Underwood, the House majority whip, in the Netflix adaptation of an acclaimed 1990 BBC mini-series starring Ian Richardson.

The designer whose sets are being built by all those workers in Joppa is Don Burt, who won an Oscar for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Other executive producers include Eric Roth ("Benjamin Button"), Dana Brunetti ("The Social Network), Fincher and Spacey, a two-time Oscar winner for his acting.

No one on the project has attracted more attention than Fincher, the Golden-Globe-winning director of"The Social Network,""Benjamin Button" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

On March 7, The Hollywood Reporter quoted unnamed sources saying that Fincher was "battling" over money with Media Rights Capital, the production company making the series for Netflix. The Reporter said Fincher was "threatening to depart over his displeasure."

Melfi says any report of Fincher not being totally onboard is false, but he does acknowledge that "this show is bigger than was expected" and as a result, the producers did have to "run some obstacles" to move forward to where they are today.

If Fincher is about to "depart," it's going to be news to the residents of Bolton Hill, for example, where one of the walls of Park Avenue Pharmacy at (Park and McMechen) is being repainted this week from salmon to gray, because Fincher "did not like the color" and thought it would look better as a backdrop in certain scenes involving the front of the Underwoods' town house if it was changed.

Locations manager Patrick Burn says he then had to find the owner of the pharmacy and take the idea to the Bolton Hill residents' association to get permission.

"It's a warm gray, and ultimately they were thrilled," he says, smiling with affection at the way a Hollywood director's vision leads to a drugstore wall getting repainted — meticulously — in Baltimore. "Hollywood, heh? …It's crazy, right?"

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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